Alabama coach Nick Saban has joined the growing chorus of voices calling for college football to be played in the fall. And, like so many others, he is arguing football players would be safer at school than if they were to remain at home.
Saban said as much in a Monday interview with ESPN, saying he wanted to ‘play for the players’ sake’ in 2020, adding that Alabama has had a low percentage of positive tests regarding the coronavirus since July 4.
“Look, players are a lot safer with us than they are running around at home,” Saban told ESPN. “We have around a 2 percent positive ratio on our team since the Fourth of July. It’s a lot higher than that in society. We act like these guys can’t get this unless they play football. They can get it anywhere, whether they’re in a bar or just hanging out.”
Saban admitted that bringing students back to campus in the fall could potentially create some “challenges” to contain the virus, but didn’t understand the need to rush to a decision regarding the 2020 season (the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences are reportedly considering voting on how to proceed as early as Tuesday). With over a month left until the start of the proposed 2020 Southeastern Conference schedule — Sept. 26 — Saban preached patience over making a hasty decision.
Saban told ESPN that Alabama has not only tested its players at the beginning of each week, but also brought in an epidemiologist to talk to his team every two weeks. Moreover, he said the team tests anybody who has symptoms, and that the team has offered an open testing site where players can receive tests as often as they want.
“It’s going to be a challenge when the other students get on campus, and I get that,” Saban said. “But we really don’t know what that entails until it happens. It’s a big reason we pushed the season back (in the SEC), to assess that, which is the prudent way to do it.
“But our guys aren’t going to catch (COVID-19) on the football field. They’re going to catch it on campus. The argument then should probably be, ‘We shouldn’t be having school.’ That’s the argument. Why is it, ‘We shouldn’t be playing football?’ Why has that become the argument?”
Saban’s opinions echoed those from several prominent figures in college football, including Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. Two of Alabama’s star players also expressed support of a 2020 season: offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood and running back Najee Harris, who was one of several Power 5 players to join together the #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay movements on Twitter.
As part of the statement shared by Harris and others Sunday night requesting to compete this year, players asked for a path toward creating a Players Association, something most college programs have strongly opposed because it might lead to student-athletes gaining paid employee rights. Should that be a sticking point for players in their decision to return to the field, it could potentially sour administrators on the idea of football this fall.
Said Leatherwood: “There’s a lot of noise and bad stuff out there about playing football with the virus going on, but I haven’t really seen anything about what the players want,” Leatherwood told ESPN. “We’ve been grinding all summer, and you don’t want it to be all for nothing.”
Harris, for his part, said he would be willing to sign a waiver that he would not sue the University of Alabama if he caught COVID-19.
“Coach Saban listens to his players and wants to hear from us first,” Najee Harris said. “He told us that none of this is about him, but it’s about us. He wants to hear our concerns, and we made it clear that we want to play and feel like Alabama is doing everything they can to make sure we can play safely.”
While Saban certainly has tremendous pull on college football, it remains to be seen whether his opinion will be enough to sway decision-makers in other conferences. Reports suggest that the SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference are aligned in their desire to play a fall season, as opposed to the Pac-12 and Big Ten.
Even among the Big Ten, a looming decision to cancel the season is not unanimous; Dan Patrick reported on Monday that Iowa and Nebraska were the lone dissenters in voting to cancel the 2020 season, though a Big Ten spokesman later said no decision has been made as of yet. Regardless, Nebraska coach Scott Frost has publicly commented that Nebraska would be willing to look at “other options” if the Big Ten were to cancel its season.